Hooked on STEM: Keeping Kids Engaged

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By: Bristol Whitcher, Senior Account Executive

“Science is only the best thing ever,” said Maya Kopfer, an 11-year-old panelist at an event in Boston hosted by The Atlantic and Dell called, “Cracking the Code: The Next Generation of Women in STEM.” While most of the audience probably agreed with Maya’s sentiment, unfortunately, the rest of society may have different feelings. While women are making dramatic advancements in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields, there’s still a long way to go. Data from the U.S. Department of Commerce show women currently hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs, and globally, only 16 percent of female students graduate from STEM subjects, according to the World Economic Forum. And this is a problem. Demand for individuals with these STEM skills is increasing at a rate, which, unless more women get involved, simply cannot be fulfilled at current levels of interest.

So what do we do?

That’s what was discussed at this insightful event, with panelists ranging from elementary education experts, higher education leaders and corporate executives trying to make a difference and close the gender STEM gap. Here are three, simple strategies for getting and keeping kids, particularly girls, interested in the STEM fields.

  • Be a role model: Eric Klopfer, professor and director of the Scheller Teacher Education Program/The Education Arcade at MIT (and Maya’s father) shared an interesting anecdote – people often joke about being bad at math – you shrug it off with a laugh and say it’s just not your thing. But what if someone said that about reading? That’s alarming – not funny, but math should be looked at the same way. You don’t have to be an expert at something to be a role model. If young kids hear adults saying, “I’m bad at math,” or “I’m bad at science,” it’s easier for them to embrace a similar mindset. Imagine a young girl, constantly hearing other women she looks up to saying “I’m bad at math.” It’s only natural that she’ll think the same about herself. Katherine Newman, Incoming SVP for Academic Affairs, University of Massachusetts added a similar thought, referencing the work of Stanford social psychologist Carol Dweck: “It’s about effort, not innate ability…reward people for revising their work…the message that sends is ‘anyone can do this.’” Don’t discourage failure, but instead, use it as a learning opportunity. Change the narrative and lead by example to keep kids, especially girls, from abandoning these essential subjects.
  • Make it relevant: Companies like LEGO Education* have decades of experience creating playful, hands-on, learning experiences that  get kids from preschool to middle school excited about STEM topics. And it’s not just the iconic LEGO bricks that capture their attention. Fun lessons accompany the unique solutions and help kids draw connections to real-world problems. Solving real-world problems is far more exciting than solving an arbitrary math problem. By providing kids with opportunities to tackle problems that resonate with them, you’ll avoid the dreaded question “When am I ever going to use this in real life,” and will keep them interested and engaged.
  • Start early: Andrea Beaty, a best-selling children’s book author and another panelist at the event, referenced a recent study that found many girls as young as ages six and seven years old already believe boys are better at STEM topics than they are. This shows that we’re not getting to this group early enough. To keep girls interested in these topics, we need to stop preconceived notions about innate STEM ability from ever even forming. As Beaty said, “being comfortable with ideas of exploration and curiosity and STEM really just become part of the girls’ DNA, so when they get into school they hit the ground running.” Just as learning a language at a young age is hugely beneficial, so is fostering an interest in STEM skills. Whether in the classroom or at home, it’s important to lay the foundation early.

I’ll be the first to admit that STEM topics can seem overwhelming – especially if you didn’t have role models in the space, or start learning concepts at an early age. But that’s the beauty of these simple steps – they’re just that – simple. You don’t have to know all the answers, but you have to be willing to figure them out. You don’t need to build a full-out chemistry lab in your home, perhaps start with letting your child measure out ingredients when baking to learn more about fractions. It’s these little steps that help set the framework for children to get, and stay, interested in STEM.

Interested in learning more about Cone’s STEM work? Let’s chat.  

*Cone client